digitalmatatus/Civic Data Design Lab MIT

An experiment from Nairobi with implications for the urbanizing world.

As transit systems go, the "matatus" in Nairobi exist somewhere between underground gypsy cabs and MTA bus service. The minibuses themselves aren't owned by any government agency. The fares aren't regulated by the city. The routes are vaguely based on a bus network that existed in Nairobi some 30 years ago, but they've since shifted and multiplied and expanded at the region's edges.

As a result, a matatu driver on "route 45" in the northeast part of Nairobi may know next to nothing about the lines that service the other half of town. Not surprisingly, many passengers on board know little about them, either. Riders who navigate the matatu system rely on it in parts, using only the lines they know and the unofficial stops they're sure actually exist. As for the network as a whole – there's never even been a map of it.

This sounds like controlled chaos, although it more or less describes how transit works in much of the world outside of North America and Europe. But amid the 130 or so unregulated matatu lines in metro Nairobi, there's an admirable logic. In the absence of a formal public transit system in Kenya's capital, people have created a comprehensive – if imperfect – one on their own. And now we know that it looks like this (click the images to enlarge):

Researchers and students at the University of Nairobi, the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, and the Civic Data Design Lab at MIT produced that map – and the underlying data behind it – after carrying cell phones and GPS devices along every route in the network.

"We recognized that if there was going to be any kind of improvement of this system in Nairobi, then people would need to be able to see it and visualize it and speak about it as a system," says Jacqueline Klopp, an associate research scholar at Center for Sustainable Urban Development.

Late last week, that map was unveiled to the public, the press, and the matatu drivers themselves in Nairobi, prompting headlines and revelations large and small from riders who've long used the system. One student at the University of Nairobi who worked on the project took a look at the finished map and realized for the first time that he could travel across town by a better route. Anyone else who eyeballs this map is bound to notice a larger pattern: the heavily centralized system no doubt complicates congestion in downtown Nairobi, suggesting that there might be some ways to improve it.

The project was also intended for the benefit of government officials, who distribute matatu licenses for specific routes, but who had long since given up on trying to plan the system. Now the researchers hope that will change.

"Look, these people have planned your system from below!'" Klopp says. "It is not as chaotic as people think it is. They have routes, they have numbers. There’s very, very regular stops that the city didn’t plan. I think it really helps people to see that there is this system that you can then improve on, that it’s not just a chaotic mess."

The project also amassed a developer-friendly open dataset akin to the GTFS data produced by U.S. transit agencies and used by Google Maps and route-planning apps. Open data about informal transit networks is inherently different from its MTA cousin. Matatus abide by no set schedule. And the service itself is more likely to respond to the needs to riders, slightly diverting off-route or depositing passengers outside of designated stops.

These are traits that transportation advocates might not want to eliminate from systems like the one in Nairobi, even as local governments try to leverage these informal networks into something that's more, well, formal. In this case, for instance, the Nairobi government wants to adopt the above diagram as the city's official matatu map.

This project, though, illustrates that it's possible to wrap your head around what looks like a scattered, unplanned transportation system. And it speaks to the reality that transit is so essential to urban life that people will find a way to develop it even without government help.

"When the government does not step in, these informal economies are developed to meet a certain need that the government should be taking care of," says Sarah Williams, the director of the Civic Data Design Lab. "That’s exactly what’s happened here. And it’s fascinating to see, because it’s totally driven by need."

Maps provided by digitalMatatus project, data and research developed by team, map designed by Wenfei Xu and Sarah Williams, Civic Data Design Lab, MIT.

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